Dr. Terence Ascott discusses the way that Christian attitudes can vary according to culture.
We were in Lebanon, at the end of a hard day of discussions. There were theologians in the group – one from Egypt, two from the USA, two from Lebanon and one French Canadian. And there was myself, a Brit who has spent most of his life living in the Middle East. We were enjoying a meal together in the hills above Beirut and reflecting on the day’s discussions about developing satellite television and on-line theological training courses for would-be church leaders who, for financial or legal reasons would never get to study at a traditional seminary.
The conversation turned to ethical dilemmas and the differences that there seem to be in different cultures when it comes to perceiving things as “right” or “wrong”.
I narrated for the group a true story from my youth and asked them to advise me, retrospectively, on a moral choice I was faced with as a new Christian in Britain. The results shocked me!
A MORAL DILEMMA
First, the story….I was 16, going on 17 and my brother Ryder was just 15. I had a driving license and he did not. However, this did not stop him riding around our London suburb of Orpington on an old motor bike that the two of us had re-built from an abandoned wreck! One day, the police stopped my brother for a routine check. Because he did not have a driver’s licence he gave the police my name, assuming that I would clear up the matter by later going to a local police station and showing my license (this was the 1960s – and Britain had yet to require photos on driver licenses!). However, the police then found something wrong with the bike’s brakes and he was told that he would be charged, have to face a fine and have points added to his driver’s license. He could appeal the charges if he wanted to but would need to do so in court.
My brother then apologetically came to me with this question: Would I take the fine and points on my driver’s license, not appealing against the charge…because, if the case ever came to court, the game would be up, and my brother would face charges of lying to the police, driving underage and without a license…and driving a vehicle with bad brakes!
“What should I have done?” I asked
For the Westerners in the dinner group, it was a no-brainer! “Of course”, they told me, “your brother should have ‘fessed-up’ and taken his medicine like a man. And, how could a Christian have any part in deceiving the authorities?” However, when I sought moral guidance from the Middle Easterners, who were still in shock at this somewhat cold-blooded response from their esteemed foreign colleagues, they sheepishly admitted that it would be unthinkable for any Middle Eastern Christian to do anything but put their family first. And, after all, isn’t what Jesus did for us a prime example of how we should always put others before ourselves? Was his death on the cross not a redemptive analogy that applied in such a situation?
It was amazing how these sincere and mature Christian leaders from different continents and cultures arrived at such very different positions on what would be the right thing to do in such a situation! Could both be “right”? In our universe of absolute Christian truth, surely one side must be right and the other wrong in this matter?
TRUE STORIES ABOUT TRUE LIES
Before we probe this a bit further, let me tell you some true stories about true lies!
When I lived and ministered in Cairo in the 1980s, I became very good friends with Saiid (not his real name). He was a dentist and had come to the Lord some ten years earlier, together with his wife and her four sisters. All of them were very loving and normal people. They mostly kept their new faith to themselves but, as appropriate opportunities presented themselves, were never ashamed to boldly witness for their Lord. Dr Saiid and his wife Nahla had twins, a boy and a girl, who were in the same class at school as my own 6 year old daughter, Mona. We would get together often as families.
One day, Nahla’s sister was arrested. Colleagues at work had caught her reading a New Testament and reported her to the authorities. As the investigation into her past continued, Dr Saiid, Nahla and one other sister were also arrested. They could not be charged with apostasy under Egypt’s civil code of law. However, the then prevailing State Emergency Regulations (bought in after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and only repealed in 2012) allowed them to be held without charge for up to 60 days before appearing in a court of law. The injustice of it all and even the way in which the arrests were carried out – in the middle of the day, leaving the twins with no one to pick them up from school, or otherwise provide for them – outraged me. A couple from the church were assigned to move into Saiid and Nahla’s home and care for the Children. They told the children that their parents had needed to travel to America on an urgent matter, but would be back as soon as they could. The children’s teacher at School, a committed Coptic Christian woman aware of the family situation, joined in the deception, knowing that if the truth came out in the classroom, it would add to the hell of the children’s already difficult situation.
As I followed the case, and heard stories from my daughter about how the twins were coping at school I became increasingly angered. One story was especially poignant – it had been Mother’s Day – a big deal in Egypt. All the kids in class were busy making cards for their mothers but the twins just sat at their desks and quietly sobbed. Bit by bit I became involved in publicising the plight of Dr Saiid, his wife and sisters-in-law. I worked with different church leaders to put together press-releases and information for Amnesty, US senators and others, all of which were hand carried out of the country in that pre-Internet era.
One day I was sitting in the office of a now deceased senior church leader, who we can call Sam. We were preparing our next press-release on the plight of the family when the phone rang. It was the Desk Officer for the Presbyterian Church at the WCC in Switzerland. He had just received the first press-release and wanted to ask if it was appropriate or not to disseminate it. He was concerned that it might cause a backlash on the church in Egypt. To my disappointment, Sam convincingly told the man in Geneva, “No this material must not be distributed, please put a stop to it…” At the end of the call, we looked at each with a shrug of resignation – “what else could I say to him”, Sam lamented, “with the security listening to my every call”. Another act of deception.
Dr Saiid, Nahla and her sisters appeared in court each 60 days. They were simply asked if they would recite the Islamic creed or shehada, in affirmation of their Islamic faith. All four refused, admitting it was very hard for them to be separated from their children and loved ones but they could not deny Jesus, their Lord and Saviour. Since the court actually had no basis to convict them on charges of apostasy, they had to release them. However, after 30 seconds of freedom, each were re-arrested under the infamous Emergency Regulations, to remain in prison for another 60 days before the sham court appearance was again repeated. This went on for 8 months but, mostly because of a strongly worded letter from 29 US Senators, threatening suspension of US funding to the country, they were eventually released. It was a great time of rejoicing but I still flinch when I remember my first reunion with Dr Saiid – and how haggard and gaunt he looked. However, there was still the love of Jesus in his eyes. We cried together.
Two months later Nahla’s mother passed away and, as a family, we went to give our condolences. During our visit, another sister, also a believer but one who had escaped the imprisonments because she lived in England, called to ask about their mother. Apparently she did not know that her mother had just died. Nahla replied, “Oh, mother is not at all well, but we hope for the best!” What was I hearing? This faithful believer who had just spent 8 months in a stinking prison cell because she would not deny Jesus was now lying to her sister, and about something as important as the death of their mother? Had she backslidden so quickly?
In the West we tell the joke about the man who, while away on a business trip calls his wife. In the course of the conversation, he asks about his cat. The wife coolly replies, “Oh, it died this morning“. In shock, he berates her, saying “How can you just tell me this, without preparing me, especially when I am away on a trip…you could have said the cat was stuck in a tree and then, when I called again, you could have told me it was not doing well, and so on”. Later on in the same conversation with his wife, the man asked about his aging mother. The wife hesitatingly replied, “well…err, she is stuck in a tree…” We laugh, but we see the point. For Middle Easterners it is more than a point, it is a lifestyle – putting people’s feelings before any facts, even facts as important as life and death. As I later found out, Nahla’s desire was that one of the family visit the sister in London, to break this tragic news personally and then be there to comfort her. Nahla also did not want her sister feeling compelled to come to Egypt for the funeral, in case there was an arrest warrant still pending for her.
What then do all these examples of deception have in common? People lied for a higher cause, for the sake of others…for a greater good. But, even so, can this be justified by Christian theology? And, which is better, or more “Christian”? The Western culture that puts truth and honesty above anyone’s feelings, or Middle Eastern culture that puts more of an emphasis on the needs and feelings of people? Is there an absolute “Christian right and wrong” here?
WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY ABOUT LIES AND LIARS?
Let’s start with scripture. Is there a commandment in the Bible against lying? There are, of course, many condemnations of those who tell lies to ferment trouble, to promote selfish personal agendas or to cover personal sin. And it is true that one of the Ten Commandments says that you “should not give false testimony against your neighbour” – but this is again only one rather negative and destructive aspect of not telling the truth – it does not embrace situations where more constructive or positive lies are told for the greater good, or the wellbeing of the hearer.
And there are also verses in the Bible that even place liars in the Christian Hall of Fame – for example, both James (James 2:25) and Paul (Hebrews 11:31) point to Rahab as a role model of faith. Rahab was a lying prostitute, who even lied to and betrayed her own people!
But it not just examples of positive-lying that we tend to gloss over in our reading of scripture through cultural glasses! There is also, for example, the almost inexplicable behaviour of Lot. He was hosting the two angels in Sodom when his house was surrounded by men who wanted access to his visitors, for shameful sexual purposes. He tried to buy off the mob by offering them his two virgin daughters! What kind of a father was he? But he was doing what, through his cultural lens, was the best thing in an apparently no-win situation, protecting his guests.
To help bring some of these issues home to contemporary Western life, let’s look at the 20th century stories of Dutch Christians protecting Jewish citizens during World War II. Picture the story – the Gestapo is arriving at the home of a Dutch Reformed pastor and asking him if he had any Jewish people sheltering in his house. Is he going to put them off with evasive language? No, to protect those Jews, he needs to muster up a huge and convincing lie and tell the Gestapo, “No, of course not, why would I be sheltering Jews – I hate Jews! Go and look somewhere else!” if we watched this sequence in a movie, we would be full of admiration for this pastor, risking all to protect relative strangers. But, at the same time we would have a problem with the fact that he lied. After all, are we not taught, in some churches at least, that all liars go to hell?
In his paper entitled “Beyond Bells and Smells”, which examines the gap between Eastern and Western Christianity, Salim J. Munayer writes, “…there is a tendency in the Western Church to understand itself as normative, having developed within a majority culture, meaning that anything which deviates from this normative theological or ecclesiastical framework is in some sense heretical.” This is important to bear in mind as we seek the correct interpretation of scripture – especially bearing in mind that it was originally written within Middle East culture.
To understand the teaching of the Bible, we not only have to understand the culture in which it was written but also the idea of a moral hierarchy. This is a concept long understood in Jewish tradition but one that that I have never heard acknowledged in Western Evangelical teaching…which is strange, because every day we are faced with moral choices which are not between the right thing to do and the obviously wrong thing. No, most of life’s choices are between the lesser of two evils, and this puts the more-often-than-not morally black-and-white Christian in a dilemma. He or she often have to take actions which leave them feeling guilty despite the fact that, in some situations at least, they know they did the best they could, given their options.
THE GREATEST COMMANDMENTS
In Judaism, there is a carefully worked out hierarchy of moral values, with the protection of human life being the highest good. Protecting human life can justify lying, stealing and the breaking of almost any other commandment or law. When you watch a movie about a Dutch pastor lying to protect human life it makes sense to most people – the guy is a hero – and so the argument of there being a biblically justified moral hierarchy that we can live by makes intuitive sense, even though it is not generally a part of our evangelical teaching. Or is it?
In Matthew 22, Jesus was asked “which is the greatest commandment in the law?” It was a contrived and trick question but Jesus responded to it anyway and his response is important to us in two ways.
First of all, the fact that Jesus answered this question at all is instructive – because he was thereby acknowledging that there are some laws that are greater than others. And what does that mean? It means that they trump other rules, negating them in any given time or situation! Which means it is OK to lie if a greater commandment is being served. This is surely going to come as a bit of a surprise to some Christians, many of whom have been taught that all sin is equally and all wrong.
And of course Jesus’ reply is also instructive in its substance: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments”.
But we are not naturally comfortable with relativism, of continually having to make moral choices; its hard work! We are also creatures of habit and prefer defined, predictable rules to live by, as evidenced by the fact that the combined Legal Codes in the USA now run to 200,000 pages! Christians also feel safer to have rules to live by – otherwise it is too easy to go down the long slippery slope leading to moral and theological hazard. But, while such rules are sometimes good and necessary, especially in civil society, they can easily lead us into the heartless Pharisee-ism that Jesus openly confronted. As Christians we need to see the practicality and the liberation in how Jesus taught us to live!
We need to re-read Romans, understanding through new eyes that we are not under law but under grace. We need to follow Paul’s logic as he asks the question: “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” And we need to follow Paul as he goes on to explain to his readers how “they had come to obey from their hearts the pattern of teaching that had now claimed their allegiance”, how they had become slaves to righteousness.
WHAT ARE THE TAKE-AWAYS?
So, where are we now and what can we take away from this discussion? That we have a licence to lie and deceive whenever it serves the greater good? No, the take-aways are, most importantly, that there are no take-aways – at least not in terms of new rules or laws to live by.
But, owning and internalising the above ideas should have some impact on us.
Firstly, we learn to embrace the fact we live in a fallen world where it is normal that we will often have to make choices between the lesser of two evils, and that we now have a way to navigate these decisions. We recognise that truth always has a context, and that we should no longer have to deal with a false sense of guilt when we do something with the primary intent of expressing our love for God and/or helping our neighbour and, in the process, unavoidably violate some of our personal principles, biblical ideals or local church rules.
Or, looking at this more positively, we could say that the way in which we navigate this hierarchy of moral choices (or compromises) is in fact a better measure of our personal integrity than the way we make simple choices between what is obviously right and that which is obviously wrong.
And, secondly, we should be less judgemental on our fellow Christians, especially our brothers and sisters from other cultural backgrounds. We only see the outward appearance and make a big mistake if we do not leave all judgments to the Lord, who sees the heart!
And, lastly, we should be a bit easier on ourselves, realising afresh that no one is going to make it to heaven through their own righteousness, or through the keeping of any rules. Our salvation is, in 100 percent of cases, a GIFT of God to us all.
If you are still reading this article, you may be waiting to know what I actually did do in response to my brother’s request. Did I take the blame for riding a bike with bad breaks or did I insist that he take the rap for this, and for driving while under the legal age, not having a licence and lying to a police officer? Well, in order to protect the innocent, or perhaps the guilty, the disclosure of what happened will unfortunately need to wait for another time!
Dr Terence Ascott, CEO and Founder of SAT-7 – a network of Christian satellite television channels currently broadcasting in Arabic, Farsi and Turkish. Dr Ascott has worked in the Middle East for the past 40 years.
[Originally published by Christian Today]
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